Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Many Not The Few

A week ago I purchased Dr Richard North's new book on the Battle of Britain which is a tribute to the 'many'. I reproduce my Amazon review here:
As Napoleon once noted: "history is a set of lies agreed upon". Historical events are often portrayed in nice neat categories with a large dose of `good old days' nostalgia chucked on top.

The reality much more often than not turns out to be very different. And so it proves with Dr North's superb very readable book here. The Battle of Britain conjures up evocative images of long hot days, soaring Spitfires and the bravery of the few repelling an anticipated German invasion. The truth though is somewhat more complicated and as a consequence far more fascinating. With rigorous research and analytical clarity this book redresses the balance away from the myth and towards the `many' who all played their part in the war; the RN, the Army, the Merchant Navy and notably the civilian population.

One of the main themes throughout the book is that the civilian population was in fact fighting a war on two fronts - against the Germans and against their own Government and Establishment. Many of the criticisms at the time would not look out of place today, the London centric newspapers (ignoring the rest of the UK, like Hull, which was being bombed relentlessly) an incompetent Government, the authoritarian nature and pettiness of Magistrates as over-the-top punishments were handed out for `dubious' non-offences, the reluctance to provide decent public shelters and the refusal to allow the use of Underground stations as refuge until the people took matters into their own hands.

This book is less a criticism of the `few' narrative, more a tribute to the millions of unsung heroes without whom we would have lost. It's also a reminder that the real enemy then (as is now) is in fact our own Government.

A very worthy addition to any bookshelf.


  1. Sounds good - I'll look out for it!
    Anyone with memories of WW2 who has not yet written them down should do so fast - before it's too late!

  2. "Lions led by ..." was never truer.

  3. @Julia Gasper I bought mine in Oxford, plenty of copies about so you should be ok.

    @James Higham Oh indeed, spot on

  4. I have read it too and think it is a first class read as well as placing the air battle in the setting of the wider struggle.

    Dr. North does not minimise the importance or heroism of the fighter battle. He does claim that the narrative of "the Few" , the elite knights of the air saving a largely passive population was much more to Churchill's romantic view of war and political programme than the reality of the wider "people's war" which, fought partly against bone-headed authority, was the full reality. He likens the Blitz to the "shock and awe" attack on Iraq and it had the same purpose - to bring about "regime change".

    With regard to the threat of invasion, he quotes Churchill "Those who knew the most were the least scared" and he also brings to light early proposals from Duff Cooper (Minister of Information) for the forming of something not unlike the EU,as a British war aim.

    All in all a tour de force.

    I understand that North is now studying the left wing viewpoint, starting with JB Priestley's enormously influential broadcasts. This was the cast of thought which prevailed at the 1945 general election. That should make an interesting book! Although I don't know how Richard finds the time, keeping up the eurefetendum blog, as he does.

  5. That's a nice review Edward Spalton, and spot on.

    Regarding your last point, agreed neither do I know how he does it.